Every Wednesday morning at Tiong Bahru Park, a group of adults pretend to brush their teeth, wash their faces and make roti prata, while laughing heartily.
Their half-hour session of laughter yoga is led by certified teacher Ms Feliz Angela Hassan, 40.
She started the Haha Hehe Club when she noticed that retirees exercising at the park all seemed to have "long faces".
It took a while to coax some shy, reserved Singaporeans to buy into the idea.
Retiree Ho Hock Tin, 67, who persuaded his wife to join the club a year ago, said he never dreamt he would voluntarily engage in such silly actions.
His first session was tough, he recalled. "I felt very awkward when I tried to laugh. It was very, very fake."
Now, it comes more easily.
"Luckily in a group, we can tease one another and make funny faces at one another. But if you are really reserved, it may be hard," he said.
He finds the activity relaxing. "I feel more refreshed and more energetic after the session. At night, I feel able to have a good night's sleep."
This discovery of the positive effects of laughter is perhaps what has helped the club grow from 19 elderly members at the start in 2010 to a healthy 360 now. About 40 come each week.
It is enough to make any entrepreneur smile, but Ms Hassan offers these sessions for free to the Henderson Residents' Committee.
Though a few laughter coaches like her conduct sessions in the community for free, the pace and stress of life in Singapore are such that more are finding they can turn laughter into serious business.
More companies are now getting coaches to conduct laughter yoga workshops for employees.
Ms Hassan, who is also a freelance swimming coach, put videos of her laughter yoga sessions on YouTube and started getting calls from companies. She now conducts workshops for corporate clients on an ad hoc basis.
"Singaporeans are very stressed. They are so rushed all the time," she said.
Also in the business of laughter is Maximum Wellness Singapore, which began holding laughter yoga workshops for corporate clients nearly two years ago. Since then, it has conducted such sessions at more than 30 organisations, including NOL Group and Singapore Press Holdings.
The corporate requests grew, by word of mouth, from about once every two months, to once or twice a month and, sometimes, once a week, said the company's founder, Mr Sri Ram Kumar.
"I find that companies are now more willing to invest in employees and the Government is also trying to be more involved in such community projects," said Mr Kumar, whose company also offers exercise programmes such as kickboxing and aerobics.
It is a growing business, he said, as people increasingly seek a better quality of life.
Another professional is Mr Avi Liran, who was certified as a teacher in 2006, and has often incorporated laughter yoga in his corporate workshops on positive transformation.
Clinical sexologist Martha Lee was certified as a leader last year and has been including laughter yoga in some of her workshops.
Seven teachers here, including Ms Hassan, MrKumar and Mr Liran, have been certified to teach laughter yoga by Indian physician Madan Kataria, who introduced it to Singapore in 2000.
Dr Kataria, 57, launched the first laughter club with just five participants in a park in Mumbai in March 1995.
Today, laughter yoga has grown into a worldwide movement with more than 6,000 laughter clubs in 60 countries, including Singapore.
LAUGHING FROM THE CORE
Laughter yoga involves voluntary prolonged laughter achieved through playful exercises and eye contact, rather than jokes or comedy.
One has to laugh for at least 15 minutes, with breaks in between, to enjoy positive effects.
It also has to be from the diaphragm and should be combined with Pranayama or yogic breathing.
Laughing from the core invokes deep breathing, which generates a sense of calm, helps one to focus and increases energy levels.
"A combination of laughter and breathing exercises increases the net supply of oxygen in the blood and maintains a physiological balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide," states the website of Laughter Yoga International, Dr Kataria's organisation.
Dr Kataria said laughter yoga, which is a cardiovascular workout, increases blood circulation, reduces blood pressure and is a "powerful antidote" for depression. It also improves allergies, asthma, arthritis and even chronic illnesses such as cancer.
Until 2006, there had been no research on laughter yoga methods. Previous research was on just laughter.
Though there is little independent research on the effects of laughter yoga, studies commissioned by Laughter Yoga International show some benefits.
In a 2006 study of 200 IT professionals in Bangalore, India, seven laughter yoga sessions were held for half the group over an 18-day period, with physiological, immunological and psychological tests performed on each person before and after the laughter yoga sessions.
Those who had laughter yoga experienced positive effects such as a significant drop in heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels. Their perceived stress level also fell significantly.
People in the other group experienced a fall only in cortisol levels, but by a smaller degree.
Dr Kataria said: "Group laughter can create a happy and motivated workforce, which includes a strong team-building element. When you are laughing and playing, you are more creative in your business."
A 2010 commissioned study by a university in Teheran, Iran, compared the effectiveness of DrKataria's laughter yoga with group exercise therapy in decreasing depression and increasing life satisfaction in older adult women. It found that laughter yoga was as effective as the group exercise.
Dr Kataria believes laughter yoga leads to more laughing in real life and, ultimately, a more positive outlook.
Mr Liran said laughter can help those who are in pain.
"Once you start laughing, feel-good hormones called endorphins are secreted in your brain," he said.
His first charity session was for 30 cancer patients who "laughed even more than healthy people".
He recalled: "One of them told me: 'When I can laugh, I need less medication'."
Even sceptics concede there may be some physical benefits, even if slight. Sports physiotherapist Gino Ng said: "I believe the respiratory muscles, for example the diaphragm, abdominals and intercostal muscles, can probably get some exercise."
POWER OF GROUP SESSIONS
Laughter helps people connect more easily while laughter yoga clubs provide a rich social network of people who care about one another.
"You can do it alone in front of the mirror if you have been to a class previously and you are very disciplined," said Ms Hassan.
But why do it alone?
"In a group, you can make eye contact with others while you do the exercises. That's the power of laughing in a group," she said.
Those who are keen on laughter yoga can check out Dr Kataria's website for a list of laughter yoga teachers here, or go online to look for laughter yoga sessions.
Corporate mindfulness trainer and freelance laughter yoga coach Jane Grafton, 55, remembers walking along East Coast Park, "glowing from head to toe with a huge grin on my face", after her first laughter yoga session in 2005.
She has attended courses in the United States and also with Dr Kataria in Bangalore in 2011.
She said: "Laughter yoga helps us not to take ourselves and life quite so seriously. It is mood changing, promotes present moment spontaneity and awareness and develops mental resilience.
"At the end of the day, people just love the freedom of letting go and being accepted in a non-judging environment."
Mr Ho said the sessions have made him appreciate the value of laughter.
"We really haven't experienced such laughter for a long time. We work hard and we don't laugh too much. Sometimes, we just work, eat and sleep. There's no chance to laugh. Now, I find that I've laughed more than I have ever laughed in my life and I can laugh like my grandson, who is seven."
Bring on the ho-ho, ha-ha-ha
If you are too shy to laugh with a group of strangers, you may want to try laughter yoga at home with family or friends.
There are many variations, as each laughter yoga leader has his own style. Some will incorporate stretching exercises, for instance.
"Laughter doesn't do harm. It will make you feel good but it doesn't solve everything. For instance, those who are seriously depressed should seek medical help. Also, for those who are heavily pregnant, laughing too hard could trigger birth. These people and those who have heart problems should seek medical approval," said Mr Avi Liran, a certified laughter yoga trainer.
A. PREPARE FOR LAUGHTER
Clap your hands to stimulate the acupressure points in the palms and increase energy levels, to the rhythm of 1-2, 1-2-3. As you do this, say ho-ho, ha-ha-ha.
You can swing from side to side as you clap, or add other movements as you see fit.
B. TAKE A FEW DEEP BREATHS
This brings more oxygen to the blood and brain, flushes out the stale air from your lungs and re-energises the body.
Breathe in deeply from your diaphragm and through the nose for three or four seconds. You will feel your abdomen expand as you breathe in.
Then, breathe out as fully as you can, in about five to seven seconds or a bit longer if you are able to. Feel your abdomen contract as you exhale.
Do this about five to 10 times.
C. PLAYFUL EXERCISES
These exercises are important as they help to convert fake laughter into genuine laughter. Here are some to try out, courtesy of certified teacher Feliz Angela Hassan.
1. TEH TARIK LAUGHTER
Curl up your outstretched right hand, bend your elbow and "pour tea" into your other cupped hand. Repeat with your left hand. Then raise your cupped right hand to your mouth, "drink" the "tea" and laugh.
2. THE NEH-NEH-NEH NEH-NEH DANCE
Do this after every two or three exercises. Just dance or clown around, make eye contact with others and say neh-neh-neh neh-neh, ha-ha ha-ha-ha a couple of times.
3. EATING NOODLES
Pretend to eat noodles, using your fingers as chopsticks. Make eye contact for three to 10 seconds with each person in the group and laugh.
4. MAKE ROTI PRATA
Use two hands to flip your imaginary roti prata and laugh.
Then, walk, hop around or do a little jig and make eye contact with those around you while holding your roti prata high up and swinging it in the air.
D. CLOSE THE SESSION
This returns your energy levels to normal. One way is to do yoga relaxation or yogic sleep, where you focus on individual body parts. You name them and sense their presence.
Lie on your back, close your eyes and relax. Take a few deep breaths.
Then, bring your attention to your leg - moving upwards from the foot, ankle, shin, knee, thigh and hip. Do this in fairly quick successions of a few seconds. Repeat for the other leg.
Go to your body - stomach, chest, shoulders and arms - and then to your throat and each section of your face, such as the mouth, eyes, nose and so on. Relax your facial muscles.
Be aware of your body as a whole. Listen to the sounds around you.
Then, gently move your fingers, take a deep breath and open your eyes.
This is best done under guidance, where the leader speaks for the group, as most people find it easier to relax completely without thinking about what they have to do.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 26, 2013
To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to http://www.sphsubscription.com.sg/eshop/